These days in the Southeast Division the only desirable place to be is first, which catapults a team into third place in the Eastern Conference standings and comes with the luxury of a guaranteed playoff berth.
As the Capitals and Florida Panthers know well, if they’re not first, they’re jockeying with a pack of teams for positioning in the playoff picture. A point or two gained here or lost there can be the difference in perspective and allows the standings to fluctuate on a nightly basis.
For example, if Washington (58 points) can defeat the Panthers (59 points) Tuesday night it will go from ninth in the East to third. Lose in regulation and the Capitals will trail Florida by three points, fall in overtime or a shootout and it’s a two-point deficit, either way they would be outside of a postseason spot. Not to mention the Panthers have a game in hand.
“This is the time where you make or break your season,” Jason Chimera said. “If there’s no urgency tomorrow then we have a big problem. Guys are talking about it right today, though, guys are ready for it.”
With 30 games left in the regular season the Capitals still have plenty of opportunity to determine whether they move up or down in the standings, but that control of their own fate could slip through their grasp just as easily.
“Pretty much however you look at it, it’s going to be tough,” Tomas Vokoun said. “We’re not in very comfortable position not at all. It looks like just one team may make it from our division, we need to keep that in mind here.”
In the 12-year history of the Southeast Division, there have been five seasons where only one team – the division winner – from the group made the playoffs. While it’s far too early to tell if that will be the case this season, things are tight enough at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings that the Capitals don’t want to bank on receiving help from other teams.
Finding a way to make it to the top of the Southeast and snatching the prize that is an automatic trip to the postseason may be the best route to offering some security that it won’t be an especially long offseason.
So how important are the Capitals’ two home games this week against Florida and Winnipeg?
“One hundred percent these are must wins,” Karl Alzner said. “These are the games, teams that we know we can beat and have to beat to have any sort of dominance. The nice thing is you can finish first in your division and be in a pretty good playoff spot that’s where we’re pretty fortunate. We’re close to Florida and we have an opportunity to still put ourselves in a decent driving seat.”